Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: A dirty dozen remain for Chicago

407361.jpg

Hawk Talk: A dirty dozen remain for Chicago

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
4:40 PM

By Chris Boden
CSNChicago.com

Only 12 games remain in the Blackhawks' season. Exactly four weeks from now, they'll be preparing for their first-round playoff opponent. That's the way they're looking at it inside the locker room, without any doubt their golf clubs will even be a consideration then.

Fourth-place in the West feels good after an impressive win over San Jose, made more impressive by the fact they were without two key players, were returning home from nine days on the road and playing the second game of a difficult back-to-back. But they're also still just four points removed from 9th place heading into Tuesday night and should they come up empty in Dallas Thursday night, they could be back in a tie for eighth-place depending on the scenarios between now and the end of that night's action.

Despite last week's hiccups (the most costly of which was coming up empty against the Panthers), the defending champs have done an exceptional job of taking care of business over the past month, failing to come up with a point just twice. And when we wrote last week about squeezing at least two, if not three, points out of the weekend versus the Caps and Sharks, they delivered three. Importance was added because they'll be doing a lot of sitting around the next week and a half, with just three games over 11 days. It comes at a good time for a handful of players whose banged-up bodies can use the lighter schedule. It won't ease the nerves of daily standings-watchers, because while their schedule lightens, other teams will pass them.

They also have the most difficult schedule of the nine teams packed between third and 11th in the West. Entering Tuesday's action, here's the average Points Percentage of the contenders' remaining opponents:

Blackhawks .590
San Jose .579
Anaheim .576
Dallas .568
Phoenix .567
Los Angeles .565
Nashville .565
Minnesota .554
Calgary .531

When we brought this up to Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa and Joel Quenneville Monday night, they wouldn't say whether all the tough opponents necessarily helps them remain in a proper focus and mindset. But they all agreed no opponent is easy, even those out of the playoff picture (Florida, back here next Wednesday, beat the Hawks in the one example of a first period in which the Hawks were not playing as they should). The players also say they've approached the past month as if the playoffs have already begun. For the most part, it's showed. There are still three games left with Detroit, as well as tough trips into Boston and Montreal.

Quick Wristers

With Brian Campbell's injury, it's a good thing Stan Bowman went beyond looking for just a "fifth or sixth" shot-blocking, penalty-killing defenseman at the trade deadline. He got more in Chris Campoli, who's definitely elevated the blue-line depth with his overall, well-rounded game. That's made all the more important as the Hawks await the return of one of the NHL's plus-minus leaders.

The Hawks cashed in on the fact they were just about fully healthy during their recent eight-game win streak, which they needed to do with all hands on-deck. Injuries are inevitable and the team's negotiating its way through the absences of Campbell and Dave Bolland. The center was lost on, as Joel Quenneville has indicated, the exact kind of stupid, irresponsible hit the league says it's trying to eliminate in order to reduce concussions, courtesy of Tampa Bay's Pavel Kubina. Now, the team and Bolland deal with the kind of injury that has no timetable for a return to the ice for an important player. He's aleady missed almost three games. Brad Richards recently missed 10. Sidney Crosby's just getting on the ice now for the first time in more than two months.

Most athletes are very particular about their equipment and almost never offer excuses publicly. I don't know whether fans would be interested in hearing every detail before booing or criticizing and just base their evaluations on the bottom line, or whether full disclosure would be helpful. They'll probably never get the latter with athletes who are big enough to face the music, based strictly on results. But there's this from Hossa Monday night: In addition to battling a number of health issues this season, he's also gone a long stretch without sticks he's comfortable with. He has them now, resulting in 10 goals and eight assists his last 15 games.

Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.

Four takeaways: Blackhawks can't crack Carter Hart as offense hits bump in the road

Four takeaways: Blackhawks can't crack Carter Hart as offense hits bump in the road

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at the United Center on Thursday:

1. Offense drying up

The Blackhawks are going through a dry spell. They tried sprucing up the lines mid-game on Monday against Vancouver, and reunited Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the top line on Thursday to help change their fortunes. But no luck.

For the third straight game, the Blackhawks scored two goals or fewer after scoring at least three goals in 23 of their previous 27 games. The power play hasn't been nearly as effective, which has played a big part in that. 

The Blackhawks had their chances at 5-on-5, though. They led in shot attempts (64-34), shots on goal (35-20) and scoring chances (31-17) but lit the lamp only once.

"I think we played pretty good at times and maybe just couldn't find the back of the net," Jonathan Toews said. "Still pretty frustrating that it's another huge opportunity at home and it's two in a row that we fall short. Still wouldn't say we played as good in our own building as we have on the road as of late. So we have to find a way to be better here. Can't allow ourselves to fall short and not get any points anymore."

2. A goaltending duel

Going into Thursday's game, two-time Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford was 5-0-1 with a 1.74 goals against average and .948 save percentage in his past six starts. And 20-year-old rising star Carter Hart had a .961 save percentage in his past two starts. Both of them picked up where they left off.

Crawford turned aside 25 of 27 shots for a save percentage of .926. Hart one-upped him, denying 40 of 41 shots for a save percentage of .976. It was the first time since Nov. 16 that the Blackhawks were held to only one goal, a span of 52 games.

"They locked it down pretty good," Dylan Strome said. "I think we had a decent amount of shots, but not a lot from the slot, but their goalie played good and made some big saves and we couldn’t capitalize. We hit a post. Hit a couple posts. Had some good chances. But unfortunately that didn’t go our way tonight.”

3. Breakout season for No. 56 continues

When Erik Gustafsson signed a two-year extension last March with the Blackhawks worth $1.2 million per year, it didn't sit well with some fans who believed he hadn't done enough to earn that just yet. But looking back on it, it's turned out to be one of the best bargains on the Blackhawks.

After scoring his 15th goal of the season, Gustafsson became the first Blackhawks defenseman to hit that mark since Dustin Byfuglien scored 17 goals during the 2009-10 campaign. And that was a season in which Byfuglien alternated as a defenseman and forward. It's been an impressive year for Gustafsson, and there are still nine games left to add to that total.

4. Controlling your own destiny

Western Conference bubble teams were licking their chops once again on Thursday night. After the Coyotes lost for the third straight time, it opened the door for the Blackhawks to ultimately control their own destiny. And they do.

A victory would've pulled the Blackhawks within two points of the final wildcard spot with a game in hand. This going into a weekend in which the Blackhawks will have a home-and-home against Colorado before heading to Arizona, which makes the upcoming three-game slate even more important.

The playoff race is really just beginning. Every team in the NHL is now in the single digits in the games remaining department. It's now or never.

"We're right in there," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "That's kind of how it is. People think we're out and we find a way to climb back in. That's good. That's good that we've showed that resilience for sure. We'd like to take that next step."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.

Blackhawks notebook: Nuclear option reunited, Patrick Kane on 100-point plateau and Drake Caggiula's status

kane_toews_usa_today.jpg
USA TODAY

Blackhawks notebook: Nuclear option reunited, Patrick Kane on 100-point plateau and Drake Caggiula's status

After losing four of their previous five games, the Blackhawks have picked up 11 out of a possible 12 points in their past six outings to reinsert themselves into the playoff discussion. A large reason for that is because they're finally getting secondary scoring.

But after going back-to-back games with only two goals — below their season average of 3.35 per game — the Blackhawks are putting the nuclear option of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews together on the first line. Is it the right move?

The underlying metrics suggest the two superstars are better when they're apart, forcing teams to play pick your poison — although they do have a plus-5 goal differential at 5-on-5 this season when they're on the ice together, according to naturalstattrick.com. But the numbers also show that when Kane and Toews are clicking, so are the Blackhawks.

According to NBC Sports Chicago's stats guru Christopher Kamka, the Blackhawks are 83-7-5 in the regular season and 6-0 in the playoffs when Kane and Toews score in the same game. In the past 52 games, they're 50-1-1. They've done that nine times this season and are 7-1-1.

In addition, the Blackhawks are 31-19-8 this season when Kane registers at least one point. They're 1-10-2 when he doesn't, and 0-1-0 without him in the lineup. Before Monday's game against Vancouver, Kane had gone three straight games with fewer than 20 minutes of ice time. It was the first time he'd logged fewer than 20 minutes since Dec. 23.

The Blackhawks are hoping to recapture some of the Kane-Toews magic from earlier in the season, with Dylan Sikura on the left side instead of Drake Caggiula, who's still in the concussion protocol.

"We had a good stretch, won some games in a row with the balanced lineup and just felt it was time to change again," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "Kind of had that feeling going into the [Vancouver] game, actually, and I think it was at the end of the first period when I flipped it. I just like how it looked. I liked the combo, and Sikura’s playing so well, he could do for them what Caggiula was doing. And that was the bottom line. When we lost Caggiula, I didn’t think we were getting as much out of them. And with the way Sikura is playing he could do that job for them, but we’ll see."

In the long term, it's crucial for the Blackhawks to fill out their top-9 and be able to roll at least three strong lines. It's difficult to ask Kane and Toews play north of 23 minutes on a nightly basis over the course of an 82-game regular season, plus playoffs. But there are 10 games left. Ride them and see where it takes you, and figure out a long-term solution this summer.

No. 88 hits 100

It came in a loss, but with a primary assist during Monday's game, Kane hit the 100-point plateau for the second time in his NHL career. It's a number that most elite offensive players aim for at the beginning of the season because it has so much meaning, and Kane is no different.

"It’s special," Kane said. "It’s always a number that you strive for, so it’s exciting to get it and get it over with, too. I thought it was pretty fitting the way that [Jonathan Toews] scored it. He’s probably been the biggest reason I’ve reached that plateau this year. And I thought it was pretty cool how [Alex DeBrincat] knew to pick the puck up right away. He’s obviously been another guy that’s been a huge part of the reason I’ve gotten there. Pretty fitting all the way around. Nice to get it done and over with. Ten games left, so focus on winning games.”

Caggiula's status

With 10 games remaining, the Blackhawks could be getting an important piece of their puzzle back down the stretch. Caggiula has been sidelined since Feb. 27 after suffering a concussion in a game against the Anaheim Ducks, and has missed the last eight games. He skated before practice on Wednesday for the first time, then joined the team for morning skate on Thursday.

"Still in the process of getting cleared," Caggiula said. "I've done some tests here and there, but I'm just starting to skate and see how I react to that. I felt pretty good today, but we'll see how I feel later in the day tomorrow and see how I react tomorrow morning. That's kind of been the telltale of how I've been feeling. Just gotta be patient and take it one day at a time."

It's a positive step forward as he inches closer to a return, but he still might be a ways away. There's no timetable on his potential return, and Caggiula himself wants to make sure he's "maybe a little bit overripe" before jumping back into game action.

"You're looking at the calendar, you're counting down how many games are left," he admitted. "We're right there in the playoff push and you want to be able to help out in anyway you can. But at the same time we've got to remember your brain is a very important part of your body. Your health comes first. You've just got to make sure that you take it one day and make sure you are patient cause like I said your brain is a very important piece. A lot of other injuries you can play through, but this is one of those injuries you've got to make sure you're fully healed."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.